July 26, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ General Ved Prakash Malik (retd)

'Crossing the LoC would have had other implications' General Ved Prakash Malik (retd)
Two years have passed since what has now been dubbed as the Kargil conflict. General Ved Prakash Malik, now retired, was then chief of the Indian Army.

In an exclusive interview with Senior Assistant Editor Chindu Sreedharan and Senior Special Correspondent Josy Joseph, General Malik discusses the conflict from the army's point of view. He takes us behind the scenes of the war, as he discusses the various options faced by the nation, including crossing the Line of Control.

What follows is the first part of an exhaustive, three-part interview on the occasion of Vijay Divas:

Two years down the line, what are your thoughts about the Kargil conflict?

I am happy we were able to overcome the challenge. We were able to prove there is great strength in the Indian military and the nation as a whole.

I also think of the futility of the whole exercise from the Pakistani point of view. It boomeranged on them. Whatever they may try to convey, the fact is that, politically and strategically, it was a disaster for them.

Could you tell us about your personal association with Kargil?

My first association with the place was way back in 1962-64. I was posted in Ladakh with my battalion, the 3rd Sikh Light Infantry. We had then passed through Kargil, which I thought was a lovely place.

Thereafter I have visited Kargil time and again, in different appointments. But what I recall most is the day I took over as chief. This was on September 30, 1997. Soon after seeing off General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, I came home and was informed there was heavy shelling going on in Kargil town. The enemy were targeting the civil population. We had eight or nine civil casualties, which was quite upsetting.

In the evening, I spoke to the army commander and asked him to let me know he was doing about it. He gave me his assessment and said we would have to quieten those guns. Next time, they shouldn't dare to... That night, I had to brief the PM about what had happened. As chief, it was my first briefing to the PM.

At that time, you had no inkling of an invasion of this sort.

We were prepared for scraps, we were prepared for a war in that area like everywhere else on the LoC and the border. And, like everywhere else, we had our contingency plans. It was those contingency plans that were put into action in 1999. But, in 1997, there was no such assessment.

I would not like you to get the impression that Kargil was predicted or predictable in October 1997. It was not. That's most important.

Kargil continued to remain active. Shelling was exchanged. The main reason for this was that we were interdicting the Pakistani line of communication along the Neelam valley. They used to have their roads there. We used to interdict on and off because this was the area where maximum infiltration took place. To that extent, it was understandable that they would try and interdict our road, which is the Kargil road. This was confirmed by (former Pakistani army chief) Jehangir Karamat, whom I met later. He said when the shelling took place in 1997 and subsequently, it was primarily because we were interdicting their Neelam valley road.

You were not in India when the conflict started.

I came to Slovakia as part of my trip to Poland and the Czech Republic. When I reached Prague, I learnt from the ambassador that the newspapers in Pakistan were claiming their militants had intruded into our area. This happened, I think, on May 15 or 16.

Before I left, the incident about the missing patrol had already taken place. But it was considered as yet another isolated occurence that sometimes takes place along the border. Before going, I had consulted the DGMO, the vice-chief, everybody. None of us had any idea that the situation would become so serious.

When I asked my people from Prague, they told me about 150 militants had entered the area. They said the defence minister had visited the area in the company of the corps commander and the army commander. And they felt the situation could be brought under control.

From then on, I spoke to them on a daily basis. It was only by May 17 or 18 that the assessment changed; we now realised it was not just 150-odd people in one area but more people in different areas. On the evening of May 17, I decided I had to return to India as quickly as possible. But, when I checked my options, I found I would take the same amount of time if I came through London as I would if I came directly to India. So, after consulting the vice-chief and DGMO, I returned as per my original schedule.

The very night I returned, I listened to a long briefing from the DGMO. I spent most of the next day in the operations room. And, the day after that, I think, I went to Srinagar. I had a long briefing there. Then, on May 23 or 24, I briefed the Cabinet.

When did you see Kargil taking on the contours of a war?

It was around May 22-23 that we realised the situation was more serious than we thought. By then, I had made my assessment of the ground situation, the extent of the area under attack, the fact the Pakistan army was fully involved in this operation and their politico-military objectives. After May 17, though, we had started warning various units that they may be required.

Were the DGMOs of India and Pakistan still talking at that stage?

Yes [they were]. That was a deliberate decision and, I think, a good one. They talked on all scheduled days and, sometimes, more often than that.

Did Pakistan's DGMO then give the impression he knew what was up?

No. He always said, look, I don't know anything.

What was the PM's and the Cabinet's reaction when you informed them of the seriousness of the situation?

They made it quite clear we had to undo whatever had happened. So we got on with the job.

Did they make it clear that you should not cross the LoC?

Yes, that was done earlier. It was reiterated on that day also.

Is it right that the army wanted to cross the LoC?

No. Crossing the LoC would have had other implications. You can't just take a decision like that. One had to prepare oneself. But I never ruled out the contingency that the LoC may have to be crossed.

In an interview to soon after the war, you had said, 'The decision to cross the LoC was initially correct.' Does that mean that, later, you felt the need to do so?

No. What I meant was that, if there was a need to cross the LoC, we would go back to the Cabinet and obtain their clearance. What I meant was that I did not rule out that possibility. Suppose our plans in Operation Vijay had not borne fruit the way they did, we may have had to consider that option.

Did you, at any point, want to cross the LoC?

We did discuss it among ourselves once or twice and with some members of the Cabinet. But, in the larger interest, we thought we could try and avoid that...

Does that mean your recommendation to the Cabinet was to cross the LoC?

(Smiles) I do not want to say anything.

In the past, the armed forces have had many differences with bureaucrats and politicians. And the war required the military to function very closely with them. Would you say the process was smooth?

War is a national effort. In this effort, everybody has to work. And there is such a lot of interaction that it is difficult to compartmentalise it into bureaucrats, army, politicians, etc.

My experience during the war -- the manner in which the Cabinet and the prime minister conducted themselves -- was a very happy one. We met every day -- the Cabinet committee on security under the PM, the three chiefs, the national security adviser and the principal secretary [to the PM], the cabinet secretary, the foreign, home and defence secretaries, the heads of IB and RAW...

The conference was chaired by the PM. Each one of us gave our assessment about what needed to be done. The final decision was always made by the Cabinet under the PM. It used to be an extremely useful exercise. Everybody worked well; there was total rapport. I personally feel that things could not have been better.

There were no dissenting voices, no stand-offs?

No major stand-offs. Sometimes you do have arguments. But no major stand-offs.

We had been given a political mandate and parameters. During the war, there was never such a situation where we were required to change those parameters. The aim was very clear: we had to get this area vacated.

Soon after you took over, you had said the bureaucrats were to be blamed for the many ills plaguing the armed forces. Does that mean that things had improved by the time Kargil happened? Also, what scope do you see for further improvement?

We were fortunate during the war. Everything went off very well. There were no problems among the three services, there were no problems with the bureaucrats. During emergencies, things generally happen like this in India. Everyone pulls together.

It is during peacetime that we have some of these problems. And there is considerable scope for improvement. Not only between the civil and military officials, but also among the three services. You know, we have to update our higher defence control establishment, our national security establishment, so there is adequate interaction and inputs.

In the National Security Council, the authority lies with the ministers under the PM. The others attend, they give their assessment and recommendations. Our recommendation has always been that the three chiefs should be permanent attendees, like the other secretaries. This has now started happening as far as strategic matters are concerned. But it needs to be institutionalised.

The chiefs who fight the war have to go by what the bureaucrats decide. Isn't that ironical?

I wouldn't like to comment on that (laughs).

It was reported there were disagreements about the use of the air force.

There were different assessments and therefore certain disagreements in the initial stages. But, subsequently, we resolved our differences. And, once we resolved them, there was no looking back.

In retrospect, was it a wise decision to use the air force? Isn't it a fact that they were not as effective as you expected?

It was. Of course it was. Strategically, it was a very wise decision. Air strikes, if nothing else, demoralised those people.

As far as the operational and tactical levels are concerned, well, I think there were some weaknesses which both the army and the air force realised. For example, our aerial surveillance, in which the IAF plays a major part, or the initial problems the air force faced in gauging their targets, etc. These are lessons we learnt during this war; people realised that we had to improve in these directions.

There is a question that lingers in many minds. The number of casualties increased because we decided to limit the war and go in for frontal attacks. Was the decision worth so many sacrifices?

That's a political question... If we had been given the task to go across, carry on the war to the other side, things would have been different. Our military aim has to be drawn out of the political aim given to us. The political aim was very clear: get that area vacated. We were asked not to violate the line of control. The military functioned within those parameters.

Do you mean to say that, if you had been allowed to cross the LoC, the casualties would have been lesser.

No, I don't think so. I don't agree with the people who believe that.

While on the topic, would you, as a general, say the Indian army is capable of capturing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir if the need arises?

No. When I say 'no,' I am not looking at it only from the military point of view. I am looking at the politico-military situation. It is not that simple today. It involves tremendous effort, it involves international opinion -- there are so many aspects involved. Things are very different now.

Part II: 'Pakistan thought the Indian Army's back was broken'

Design: Dominic Xavier

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